How Homeschooling Works

Photo courtesy NOAA
Lake Charles Area Homeschool Group, touring the National Weather Service office in Louisiana.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), about 1.1 million students were being homeschooled in the United States in the spring of 2003. Many homeschooling agencies and organizations suggest the real number is about twice that. All but nine U.S. states require homeschoolers to notify the state if they elect to homeschool.

At 0.5 percent of the 2002-2003 school-age population, 1.1 million homeschooled students may not sound that impressive, but consider this: Only 20 years ago, homeschooling was illegal in much of the United States. By the early to mid 1990s, thanks to some very active homeschooling families and changes in legislation, the new homeschool movement was in full swing, and it has been gaining momentum ever since.

Up Next

­But why is homeschooling gaining in popularity? Why do parents choose to homeschool their kids? In the 2003 National Household Education Survey (NHES) conducted by the NCES, parents were asked whether particular reasons for homeschooling applied to them. Of the applicable reasons, parents were then asked to identify which was the most important:

  • Thirty-one percent homeschool out of concern about the environment of other schools.
  • Thirty percent do so to provide religious or moral instruction.
  • Sixteen percent choose homeschooling in response to dissatisfaction with the acad­emic instruction available at other schools.

In this article, we'll take a look at what homeschooling is and the various methods in practice and we'll discuss what else you need to know if you're thinking about homeschooling your own children.


What is Homeschooling?

Photo courtesy A to Z Home's Cool
A homeschooler touring a pineapple field in Maui with his sister

Homeschooling, for legal reasons, is defined a bit differently state by state. For example, chapter 115C of the North Carolina General Statutes defines homeschooling this way:

    "Ho­me ­school" means a nonpublic school in which one or more children of not more than two families or households receive academic instruction from parents or legal guardians, or a member of either household.

In as much as the definition changes from state to sate, so do the legal requirements for establishing a home school (we'll talk more about this later). These laws usually kick in when your child is somewhere around the age of seven or e­ight. Before then, the schooling you provide within your home is of no real legal concern to the government. If you're wondering what type of "homeschooling" occurs at such a young age, here's a short list of some of the things a child learns before officially starting school:

­It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

- Albert Einstein
  • How to talk
  • How to walk
  • How to run
  • How to play games
  • How to sing
  • How to get dressed
  • How to tie shoe laces
  • How to count to 10, 20 or more
  • How to recite the alphabet
  • How to recognize the letters of the alphabet
  • How to spell his name
Homeschooling in North Carolina
Homeschooled Students Statewide
North Carolina requires homeschooling parents to submit a "notice of intent" to the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education.

These are just the basics. There are many children who know how to read, do simple math, play a musical instrument, swim, dance and more, all before they're old enough to attend kindergarten. Usually, it's someone within the home -- a parent, grandparent, older sibling or guardian -- who helps the child learn to do these things. Every nature walk, pointing out various plants, insects and animals, is a learning experience. Every trip to the zoo is a learning experience. Even daily activities like grocery shopping and cooking are all learning experiences.

So, if a child's education is already off to such a great start at home, why rock the learning boat? The answer is simple: Homeschooling isn't for everyone. But it is definitely a good fit for some.

There are dozens and dozens of books and Web sites attesting to what a positive experience homeschooling can be for the entire family. Still, homeschooling requires a huge commitment, on the part of both the parents or guardians and th­e children themselves. It's certainly not a decision to be made lightly.

Let's take a look at some of the things you should consider if you're thinking about homeschooling.


Deciding to Homeschool

My grandmother wanted me to get an education, so she kept me out of school.

- Margaret Mead

­Deciding whether or not to homeschool your child (or children) is an enormous decision. As ­with any other major decision, it helps to do some research. If you know any people who homeschool their children, talk to them. Find out what they like and dislike about the process. If you don't know anyone, ask around and see if your friends or neighbors know someone. There are also several Web sites, message boards and chat groups about homeschooling (see the links section at the end of this article). The local library is a great resource, too. In addition to all-in-one reference-style books like "Homeschooling Almanac," by Mary and Michael Leppert, and "Homeschooling for Success" by Rebecca Kochenderfer and Elizabeth Kanna, you can find books like "Real-Life Homeschooling" by Rhonda Barfield, which tells the stories of 21 very different homeschooling families.

Here are some questions to think about when considering the decision to homeschool. You may want to write down your answers for reference.

Why do you want to homeschool?
Fully answering this question will, if you decide to homeschool, be of great help in choosing a method or style -- so be as explicit as you can be.

Can your family afford to homeschool?
The actual expense of the materials required to run a homeschool can range from as little as a few hundred dollars each year to much, much more. The real expense generally comes in the form of a lost salary. Traditionally, homeschool families find it necessary for one parent to manage the homeschool -- meaning there's no room for an outside job for that parent. However, with more and more folks working from home, this doesn't have to be the only scenario. In fact, some homeschooling families find it possible for both parents to work if a home-based business or telecommuting is involved. In this situation, with a creative schedule, both parents can share the role of "teacher" in their homeschool and have another job, too.

Do you feel qualified to teach your child/children?
Note that we phrase this, "Do YOU feel qualified?" Right now we're not talking about whether your state finds you legally qualified -- we'll talk about that a little later. This is about how you feel. Hopefully this is something you're already pretty confident about. However, if the idea of teaching your child sends you into a cold-chill panic, that's something very important to consider.

What does your child think about homeschooling?
Whether you're starting out with a seven-year-old or a teenager, this is a good question. If, at this point, you're taken with the idea of homeschooling and your child is on board, too, that's a big plus. But if your child is not quite ready to pick out the homeschool colors and design the stationery, find out why. Make a list of pros and cons -- really discuss the issue. Key points could be made during the discussions that have an impact on the final decision. You may convince your child it's the right decision for now, or he/she may show you that it's not. It could be that you decide to give it a try on a trial basis. Make notes of these initial discussions and revisit the topic at the end of the first homeschool year. This process could be your very first official homeschool project.

Now, for the sake of this article, let's say you've decided to homeschool. What's next? You need to address the legal requirements of creating a home school. Let's take a look at a real-life example.


Starting a Homeschool

­­There are a number of clearinghouse-type Web sites that provide information reg­arding specific homeschooling requirements for each state. Don't rely solely on the summary of information you find there -- use the links provided to actually visit the appropriate state agency for direct legal information. Some of the most comprehensive listings can be found at the following Web sites:

­As an example, let's say you're interested in homeschooling your child, and you live ­in North Carolina. The National Home Education Network provides a link to the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education (NCDNPE). When you visit the NCDNPE, you'll find very detailed information regarding the process for notifying the state of your intent to homeschool as well as a summary of the rules set out in chapter 115C of the North Carolina General Statutes. In addition to the requirements, the NCDNPE provides a helpful list of reminders and some recommendations.

Chapter 115C of the North Carolina General Statutes defines homeschooling this way:

­"Home school" means a nonpublic school in which one or more children of not more than two families or households receive academic instruction from parents or legal guardians, or a member of either household.

Here's what else the North Carolina General Statutes has to say about homeschooling:
  • When a child is of compulsory school attendance age (ages 7-16), you must file a "Notice of Intent" to operate a home school with the Director of the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education or a member of the director's staff. If at any time you decide to terminate the operation of your home school, you are also required to notify the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education.

  • When you fill out the Notice of Intent, you are required to choose between operating under the qualifications of a "private church school or school of religious character" or under the qualifications of a "qualified nonpublic school" (a.k.a. "independent school"). While the requirements are the same for both classifications, your selection provides some statistical information in regard to the purpose of your decision to homeschool (religious reasons vs. other).

  • NC Home School Estimated Statewide Enrollment By Type
    2003-04 School Term
     Student Total
    % of Homeschooled Students
    Independent Schools
    Religious Schools
    Total Students
  • North Carolina law requires that the person(s) providing academic instruction within a homeschool hold, at the very minimum, a high school diploma or its equivalent. When you submit your Notice of Intent to the NCDNPE, you should attach photocopies of documentation that proves you meet this requirement.

  • Any requirement related to safety and sanitation inspections shall be waived if the school operates in a private residence.

  • You are required to create and maintain annual attendance and disease immunization records for each pupil enrolled in your home school. The home school must operate on a regular schedule, excluding reasonable holidays and vacations, during at least nine calendar months of the year.

  • Each qualified home school must administer, to each enrolled student, a nationally standardized test or other nationally standardized equivalent measurement sometime during the school year, every year. The test has to measure achievement in the areas of English grammar, reading, spelling and mathematics. Records of the results of these tests must be made available for one full year after testing.

  • As a way to assure that all North Carolina high school graduates possess the same "minimum skills and that knowledge thought necessary to function in society," students attending the eleventh grade (or its measured equivalent) have to take a nationally standardized test or other nationally standardized equivalent measure that gauges competency in the verbal and quantitative areas. Students must achieve a set minimum score in order to be graduated from high school. Records of the results of these tests must be made available for one full year after testing.

You should now have a good idea of what homeschooling is and be able to find out how to meet your state's requirements. But you're not quite finished laying the groundwork yet. It's time to start thinking method.


Homeschooling Methods

Photo courtesy A to Z Home's Cool
A homeschooler getting some schoolwork done

­For many people, homeschooling calls to mind an image o­f three or four children seated around a kitchen table feverishly writing in workbooks while Mom stands nearby. W­hile this might be a reality in some homes, there is no typical homeschool day. With several philosophies or schools of thought on the topic, there's as much variety to the homeschool methods and practices used as to the­ families that are using them. Let's take a look at some of these methods.

Structured Homeschooling
Also known as the "School-at-home" or "Traditional" approach, this is exactly what it sounds like -- an environment that is similar to what the student would find in a traditional school setting. The parent, taking the role of "teacher," utilizes curriculum close or identical to what the student would be following in a traditional public or private school. With this method, parents can purchase packaged curriculum materials that include everything from student and teacher texts to assignment guides, workbooks and tests.

For examples of boxed-curriculum, see Laurel Springs School, Calvert School or Keystone National High School.

Classical Education
This approach is based around two main principles:

  • There are three phases or stages of learning, known as the trivium, that build upon each other:
    • Grammar - "Grammar-school-aged" students focus on memorization and fact gathering.
    • Logic - "Middle-school-aged" students focus on critical thinking -- putting the pieces of information they've gathered into context.
    • Rhetoric - "High-school-aged" students evaluate information and are able to formulate an articulate discussion of this information.
  • These learning phases are language-focused, dependent on the written and spoken word, as opposed to image-based learning that uses still and moving images (such as photos, video or film).

­For a thorough explanation of this method of study and how to implement it, see the book "The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education" by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer.

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

- John Dewey

The Montessori Method

­Based on the research and writing of Maria Montessori, this method sees the child as both teacher and student. Learning is seen as a natural, self-directed process. The principles of this method focus on what Montessori called the "absorbent mind." The child is free to learn at his/her own pace by interacting with and responding to the environment. The parent or teacher, acting as "keeper of the environment," is supposed to create an engaging setting that encourages the child to explore and react with the surroundings. For younger students, this even includes providing child-sized learning tools such as small chairs and tables. Montessori's work, "The Montessori Method," can be viewed online at the University of Pennsylvania Digital Library.


Other Homeschooling Methods

­Charlotte Mason Method
This method is based on the teaching principles of Charlotte Mason. These principles are laid out in the six-volume work, "The Original Home Schooling Series," by Charlotte M. Mason. In addition to the standard core subjects, the study of fine arts and nature are integral. The most unique element to this approach, h­owever, isn't so much found in the method of teaching as it is in testing the knowledge gained. Rather than using a standard question-and-answer format of testing, a process called "narration" is used to quantify learning. Author Catherine Levison explains it this way:

    ­We ask the child to tell us everything he knows about Canada, pollination, the endocrine system, long division or whatever we have been studying either for that day or the entire year. This helps you as the parent to know immediately if your child has understood and comprehended the materials he is working through. The main point is that you cannot narrate what you do not know, and you can only narrate what you do know.
Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.

- Beatrix Potter

­The Waldorf Method is based on the research and works of Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner. Concerned with educating what he called the "whole child," Steiner placed emphasis on a variety of creative topics that traditional schools usually consider ancillary, such as the fine arts (painting, music and drama), foreign languages, sewing and even gardening. The student's stage of development dictates the subjects of study and coursework. Some people refer to this as the "head, heart and hands" method.

Unit Studies
Unit studies can be considered the multi-tasking homeschool method. One specific topic or theme is stretched across several academic areas for anywhere from one week to an entire semester. The topic or theme might be anything from a series book (like "Little House on the Prairie") to a holiday, a sport, or an animal. You then stretch it across various subjects like history, literature, math and science. This method can be very hands-on in that the parent can have the student help decide which activities to incorporate in the study unit -- conducting experiments, creating timelines, visiting museums, doing library research, reading books, watching special TV programs or documentaries and so on.

Also referred to as "child-directed learning" and "natural learning," the term "unschooling" was originally used by author John Holt. This method is exactly what it says it is: not school. To follow this method, you take everything you know about school -- the rigid schedule, the teacher-led activities, the textbooks and so on, and forget it all.

Photo courtesy A to Z Home's Cool
A homeschooler learns about wiring as he watches an expert set up electronically controlled fireworks.

Unschooling is perhaps the most natural progression from the homeschooling foundation a parent has already developed with his child. Learning simply remains a natural part of the day, everyday. The child decides what he wants to work on each day, whether it's going to the library to read books on whales or conducting science experiments in the kitchen all day.

As unschooled children get older, they may integrate outside classes and workshops into their schedule. The key here is that the student is truly managing the schedule and must make arrangements for meeting that schedule. As one unschooled student puts it, "I'm planning what I do, so I have an overwhelming sense of commitment to what I'm doing. Instead of being told what to do and when and simply being shuttled back-and-forth from activity to activity, I get to choose." With this choice comes the responsibility of planning logistics and integrating their schedule into the larger family schedule, making this the ultimate lesson in time-management.

Parents are on hand for support -- helping to maintain or foster an enriching and positive learning environment, to answer questions and act as a sounding board for ideas; but it is essentially the child who's in charge here.

Photo courtesy A to Z Home's Cool
A homeschooler examining a whale skeleton at the Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, CA

Eclectic Method
This approach is a lot like visiting a method buffet. The eclectic homeschool parent selects a variety of elements from any or all of the homeschooling styles and develops a custom-tailored method that suits both student and teacher. The advantage to this approach is that it's easy to tailor to any learning style.

In addition to these various methods and approaches, there's a whole host of add-on possibilities to enhance your child's homeschooling experience. A variety of charter schools, umbrella schools and cyber schools now provide distance learning opportunities via the Internet. Homeschooling students can also take independent studies and correspondence courses through universities and colleges around the globe.

Photo courtesy NASA
At the Botball National Tournament: Otter Creek Middle School from Terra Haute, IN vs. Rolla Area Homeschool from
St. James, MO

You now know a little about the various approaches and how to find more information on each. There's still one other crucial element to think about: learning styles.


Learning Styles

Famous Homeschoolers

­Now that you've got a general idea of the v­arious approaches you can take to homeschooling, there's something you should consider before selecting a particular method -- your child's learning style. There are four basic ways in which a person can learn something:

  • A visual learner is someone who must see things to really understand them. Visual learners respond well to diagrams, images, charts, picture books and so on. They may also like to respond to new knowledge by creating a visual representation of it.

  • An auditory learner is someone who learns from listening and speaking. An excellent homeschooling approach for auditory learners, because of its unique narration element, is the Charlotte Mason method.

  • A tactile learner is someone who learns through touch. A good way to engage the tactile learner is through field trips, experiments, craft projects and so on.

  • A kinesthetic learner needs to be closely involved in what he is learning. For example, if a kinesthetic learner is reading a story about sailing, he/she will want to see a sailboat in person, to investigate the sailboat and possibly go sailing.

You may already have a good idea of what type of learner your child is, but if you don't, all it takes is a little time and some close observation. You may also want to figure out what kind of learner you are, because that could have an impact on your natural teaching style.

Photo courtesy Morguefile
Some children learn best by close interaction with the lesson topic.

Homeschooling will be as much a learning process for you as it is for your child. You don't have to lock yourself into one method and stick with it forever. If you start with the Structured Method and it's too rigid, try Unit Studies. If that's not a good fit, move on to the Eclectic Method. Furthermore, according to several homeschooling Web sites and books, many homeschooling parents approach homeschooling on a year-to-year basis: It's never too late or too early to homeschool, and if it doesn't work out, you can re-enroll your child in a more traditional school the following year.

Now, let's take a look at what's beyond homeschooling.


Homeschooling and College

Homeschooler Turned Best-selling Author
At 15, Christopher Paolini was finished with high school and ready to start college. Thousands of readers are happy his plans didn't exactly work out that way. Instead of writing term papers, Paolini decided to write his first novel. Now, a few years later, with a three-book deal with Knopf under his belt and movie rights sold to FOX 2000, Paolini's future couldn't be brighter. To what does the young author attribute his success? Homeschooling!

According to, Paolini said:

    Everything I did was only possible because my parents were dedicated and loving enough to homeschool my sister and me. My mother, a former Montessori teacher and author of several children's books, took the time to instruct us every day. Aside from textbook lessons, she had us perform many exercises designed to stimulate our creativity.

Photo courtesy
by Christopher Paolini

­One of the largest concerns for any parent considering the homeschool route is college. In fact, this question almost always makes the "most frequently aske­d questions" list on most homeschool-related Web sites: "Will my homeschooled student get into college?" The answer to this question seems to be a resounding "Yes!"

You'll find success stories in books and on Web sites about homeschooled students attending the college or university of their dreams, and sometimes these are Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Just like with a traditionally educated student, the homeschool student should start to think about college choices sometime during his ninth grade year (or its equivalent). Additionally, homeschool students can and should take the ACT and SAT. Close attention should be paid to maintaining the student's transcripts and acquiring letters of recommendation from mentors, tutors, instructors and bosses. Many of today's homeschool students take advantage of their accommodating schedules by participating in apprenticeships. Not only does this provide valuable hands-on experience, it also enhances any college application.

Although learning, especially life-long learning, seems to be a focus of many homeschool methods, college isn't necessarily the ultimate goal for every homeschooler. Unfettered by the rigid schedules of traditional school, homeschoolers may begin to think about learning in a broader way. Because they've already taken an unconventional approach, they may be less hesitant to do it again. For these open-minded life-students, the "uncollege approach" might be just the ticket.

Author Danielle Wood presents a plethora of "uncollege" opportunities in her book, "The Uncollege Alternative: Your Guide to Incredible Careers and Amazing Adventures Outside College." In this well-organized reference, you'll find pointers for taking time off before college, for those who aren't ready to write off the college experience for good. There is also an abundant amount of information regarding alternative schooling programs and apprenticeships.

­For more information on homeschooling and related topics, check out the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links